Cold nose, warm heart

Furry friends prove beneficial for owners’ mental health

August 2, 2017 is a day that the Minnehaha community will never forget.

“I was in the building that day when the explosion happened,” said Emily Kennett, the assistant to the athletic director.

Many people have had traumatic experiences, and their pets have helped them cope.

“I had a different dog then, his name was Louis,” said Kennett. “He was a Great Dane. When I finally got home that afternoon, I walked in the house and [Louis] walked up to me…it still gives me goose bumps to this day…he walked up to me and just very gently and slowly sniffed me from head to toe like he knew something had happened, and he was trying to figure out what it was.”

Dogs are not only cute, but they provide important benefits to our health. Pets, specifically dogs, have huge impacts on our physical and mental health, studies show. They calm us when we are stressed out, ease loneliness, make us laugh and become healthier human beings overall.

“I think that any pet owner can tell you that dogs make you smile,” said Kennett. She now has a 130 pound Great Dane named Denver.

Many times, pets are there to help us and comfort us when we need it, but they also make us laugh.

In Kennett’s backyard, “[There is] a hill and [Denver] runs to the top of the hill and then lays down and rolls down the hill. You watch this giant dog and he just looks ridiculous, it’s like how can you not laugh and smile at that, he’s a clown.”

Dogs can be a stress reliever when coming home from a day filled with tests and projects at school. According to a study done by Washington State University, petting a dog or cat for just 10 minutes can reduce stress levels.

“Just petting an animal itself actually changes the chemicals in your brain, it actually shows that it reduces cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone, and so being with the animals actually will reduce an individual ‘s cortisol level,” said Christine Paton, an Upper School counselor.

Along with the decrease in cortisol, the hormones that make us happy, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine levels are increased. If stress hormone levels are decreased, it could have positive effects on people’s physical and mental health over time. Blood pressure is also stabilized from petting a dog.

Animals can help calm people when they need it.

“I have a neighbor whose son went through equestrian therapy,” said Paton. “[It] just really reduced stress, being around the horses, taking care of the horse. They just have a very calming effect.”

For the second anniversary of the explosion, Kennett didn’t have a Great Dane there to comfort her.

“I realized how [their] calm and… just their presence and being next to me all the time [helped me],” said Kennett.

After the explosion and during finals week, therapy dogs were brought to school through a program called Paws for Learning.

“It was a great time for students who oftentimes didn’t talk a lot or were more quiet.” said Paton.“They would just seem to open up when they are all together and gathered together…I really feel like the dogs have a huge benefit for students for reducing their stress… it made them so happy.”

A survey done by HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute) and Mars Petcare found that 80% of pet owners say their pet makes them feel less lonely. This survey also found that 85% of the people who responded (pet owners and non-pet owners) agree that interaction with pets can help reduce loneliness.

“My pet makes me feel less lonely,” said senior Kaari Classen. “I am an only child and because of that, if and when my parents are gone, my dog, Max, is the only one in the house besides me. When this happens it’s nice to have another presence in my house. In addition to this, my dog will almost always match my energy, so if I’m excited, he is excited, which is really fun.”

When the dogs visited Minnehaha, students reported that their stress levels decreased and they felt more relaxed, recharged, and happy.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, pet owners have better self-esteem.

Other than positively impacting our mental health, “Dogs improve the amount of exercise people get, because a lot of the time people are more motivated to get out and walk their dog, run their dogs, bike with their dogs,” said Kennett.

“Just by going and petting [my pets], or going on walks with my dog, it definitely reduces my stress especially because it takes my mind off of what I’m doing,” said senior Lindsay Irmiter.

In a study done at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, they discovered that people with mildly elevated blood pressure over the age of 50 had lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure when they owned a dog or cat than those who didn’t own any.

“I have a dog named Shiloh and two cats, Arya and Hobbes,” said Irmiter. “They definitely make me happier just having them around because they are like having friends around constantly.”

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About Jordan Erickson

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